Japan determined to bounce back after Costa Rica loss

Ken Satomi / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan defender Maya Yoshida, left, and midfielder Hidemasa Morita walk away as Costa Rica celebrate their goal in the 81st minute of the teams’ FIFA World Cup group match in Al Rayyan, Qatar, on Sunday.

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Samurai Blue captain Maya Yoshida said he has shifted his focus onto the team’s upcoming match against Spain, after his mistake allowed Costa Rica to score in the 81st minute of Japan’s FIFA World Cup Group E game on Sunday.

Japan failed to take advantage of their opportunities and were bested 1-0 by Costa Rica.

Yoshida gathered his team into a huddle after the match, and spoke briefly, but forcefully, saying, “Let’s switch our focus to the next game,” in an attempt to buoy the players — and himself — after the unexpected defeat.

The 34-year-old defender had played solidly until just before the goal, when his concentration wavered momentarily. Initially, it seemed as though Yoshida had foiled a Costa Rica counterattack, but the ball was picked up by the opposition and distributed to Keysher Fuller, whose shot arced over the outstretched hands of keeper Shuichi Gonda and into the goal.

Commitment to Japan soccer

Yoshida is determined for Japanese soccer to thrive at this World Cup. He says the coronavirus pandemic that has raged since 2020 changed his perspective that “it’s the norm to play in the national team.” The pandemic has usurped the activities of the European clubs he played for, and the Japanese national team. “This is the peak age for me as a player, and I was worried that my career in the national team would end,” Yoshida said.

Yoshida first started playing football in Europe 13 years ago. After encountering its mature football culture, he began to have deep concerns about the realm of soccer in his home country. “I decided to do everything I could to boost Japanese soccer,” he said.

Last summer, Yoshida played in the Tokyo Olympics, though says he was reluctant to do so at first, over fears he “might deprive young players of international experience.” At the Games, Japan advanced to the semifinals stage.

In June, Yoshida became the chairman of the Japan Pro-Footballers Association, where he has worked to improve the treatment of players.

But his top priority remains the national team. In addition to serving as captain, Yoshida acts as “bridge” between coach Hajime Moriyasu and the players, when discussing tactical details.

In July, Yoshida moved from Italy’s Serie A to FC Schalke 04 in the first division of Germany’s Bundesliga, noting that it was important to learn about Japan’s upcoming opponents. Yoshida built upon his game playing in highly tense German league matches in front large crowds and against many of the players who would figure in Japan’s opening group match in the World Cup, where they caused a major upset by beating Germany 2-1.

Since making his national team debut in 2010, Yoshida has faced criticism on many occasions, but has shaken it off each time. “I understand there’s going to be a lot of criticism [for my mistake against Costa Rica], but I’ll get up, dust myself down and challenge Spain with confidence and courage,” he declared.

After Sunday’s game, Moriyasu said the way the game was handled was not that bad, in that Japan didn’t give up too many goals to their opponents and stayed on the offensive.

“I’ve no regrets at all about [replacing five of] the starters,” Moriyasu said. “I made that choice to increase our odds of winning. We’ll prepare well both offensively and defensively for the Spain game.”

Japan will play Spain on Thursday at 10 p.m. (4 a.m. Friday, Japan time) and look to advance to the knockout stage for the fourth time, and for a second consecutive tournament.

The whole country waits with bated breath to see if Japan can get the better of World Cup hopefuls Spain.